gm baba sy: 1st african checker world champion

Chess and checkers are often thought of a “twin cousins” in the board sport arena. Millions of people have enjoyed checkers at a basic level and of those, many also enjoy chess. The relationship between this two games will always be inextricably linked. It is for this reason that we can appreciate the excellence of its participants.

The late Baba Sy of Senegal  is recorded as the greatest checker player in African history.  He has paved the way for other talented players such as Ndiaga Samb. The story goes that  French player, Emile Biscons saw the 23-year old Sy playing in Dakar, Senegal and invited him to play in Europe.

Sy summarily won  the French Championship in 1959 in Châtellerault and began a string of victories that took Europe by storm. He then scored 2nd in the 1960 World Championship behind V. Shchegolev and in front of Iser Kouperman (the previous World Champion). The latter figure was involved in a dispute surrounding the 1963 championship match with Sy.

The Russian Federation cancelled the match and thus the bout with Sy never happened when Kouperman did not show. Sy died in a 1978 car accident in Dakar and it was not until 1986  that he was declared the 1963-64 World Champion. In 1970, Sy played Kouperman for the first time after the debacle and won the match 12-10.  However, former World Champion (1972-73) Ton Sijbrands stated in an essay,

“But it would be an extremely simplistic view of the things if one based it only on this score (12-10 in favour of Sy Baba) to deduce from it that Baba Sy would have  beaten Kouperman if this match had not been cancelled. Myself, I find that it is a possible outcome, but one should not underestimate the enormous force present in 1963 (and remains today in the play of Kouperman). This is why – once again – this remains mainly a question of speculation.”

While there are striking similarities with the Bobby Fischer-Anatoly Karpov dispute, it is still a shame that Sy was not awarded the title until after his death.  One wonders the true reason surrounding the Soviets refusal to play the match.  Sijbrands further remarked that after 1963, Sy did not challenge again for the world title. However, it is obvious that as a pioneer he set the stage for a contingent of strong African players that exist today.

According to chess historians, Sy played aggressively in his earlier years, but toned down in his later years, playing more cautiously. He relied a lot on intuition as opposed to current theory. Another assuming quality about Sy is that he played with passion and loved the game. Sijbrands called him one of the greatest players to ever play the game.

Official Site of Baba Sy (photos, games, essays by GM Ton Sijbrands)

World Draught Federation (FMJD)

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